If you have teenagers, you know how important bathing can be. And when a shower is skipped, you’ve got no hesitation marching your kids in the direction of the bathroom with a loofah in hand. But things become a little more delicate when an adult member of your family, maybe a parent or spouse with dementia, needs help maintaining their hygiene habits.
To offer a few tips, we invited Helle Brand, a physician assistant and dementia specialist at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Tucson, AZ. She emphasized these key points as important in helping people with dementia with bathing.
1. Know When Help is Needed
This can be the hardest part of helping a person with dementia. While some loved ones have predictable symptoms, many have some that come and go. Brand called out a few telltale signs that a person’s hygiene may be suffering, such as body odor, long nails or unkempt hair. These declines in care can happen so gradually that you don’t notice right away.
Brand also recommended checking in on soap and shampoo usage over time. If you notice no changes, this can be a sign that bathing may have become difficult for the person. Gently and respectfully offer your help.
Remember that you may not need to do everything right away. For your comfort and theirs, offer to help with difficult steps like washing hair, the back and offering to assist with drying.
2. Keep a Respectful Tone
Especially if you’ve raised children, it can be easy to slip back into the role of parent. When dealing with older adults or your own parents, this role reversal can lead to confrontation. Speak to your loved one as a peer with care and respect and avoid a bossy or “I know best” attitude.
Brand advised, “Use collaborative statements instead, such as ‘Let’s get cleaned up…’ and appeal to social sensibilities by using reminders of how they like to look nice for appointments. Offer an enticement, such as what a fun day is ahead which will include some favorite activities and diversions.”
3. Create a Comfortable Setting
Do what you can to make bathing a pleasant experience by preparing the factors that you can control. “It’s common for people with dementia to struggle with temperature, feeling cold more than others,” said Brand. “Setting the stage in the bathroom with a nice warm space will help. Use diversion such as music or delicious smelling bath soaps to create an inviting ambience.” Lastly, try to schedule showers for the person’s best time of day. To help them feel more in control offer choices for now or in a few minutes. You can walk away and reapproach as needed.
4. Think Safety First
In some cases, bathroom avoidance can be rooted in insecurity. You can help a loved one with dementia avoid stressful moments by preparing a space that helps them to feel safe and stable. This could mean installing grab bars, textured flooring, hand-held shower heads, or a shower chair. This could also make your job much easier and safer, taking some pressure off you to keep the person steady as they bathe.
5. Learn Your Limits
It’s estimated that one in 14 people over 65 are affected by dementia. This means that many families are unprepared when their loved ones begin to show signs. No matter your kind intentions or studious research, you may reach a point where you no longer feel comfortable providing the care that your loved one needs. That is perfectly fine. In fact, understanding your limits will be beneficial to you and the person you are caring for.
Brand offered advice to people who aren’t sure what to do. “Family caregivers should take their cues from their own sense of wellbeing, and from observations from others as to their everyday stress levels. This can be your best indication to determine if help is needed.” If you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t wait to seek help. Professional help will make your life easier, improve your relationships and ensure that your loved one is getting the care they need.
It’s normal to have questions in scenarios like these. You can learn more about caregiving from our experts by exploring similar topics to this one. If you want to discuss your situation with an expert, schedule an appointment with your loved one’s primary care physician.
Are you a caregiver to someone with Alzheimer's or dementia? Listen to our Dementia Untangled podcast for guidance and support to help navigate this complicated and challenging role.